August 29, 2016 | The Hill
Iran looks to Latin America to revive missile infrastructure
With the presidential campaign in full swing, U.S. media may be forgiven for downplaying the news of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's six-nation tour of Latin America last week. His visit, however, should elicit concern in Washington.
Iran has long relied on Latin America to evade Western sanctions, including, critically, on ballistic missiles technology. Now sanctions are gone and Iran's missile activity no longer banned, but Tehran continues to use America's backyard to develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Earlier this month, the Brazilian journalist Leonardo Coutinho confirmed the strategic importance of Latin America to Iran's military program in the magazine La Veja. Coutinho exposed an official document dated Aug. 3, 2009, showing that then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had approved a $1.3-million investment for a joint venture between Venezuela's state defense contractor, CAVIM, and Iran's Parchin Chemical Industries.
The project involved the establishment and improvement of facilities for producing nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, both key components of solid rocket fuel. Cooperation between Iran and Venezuela's military sectors has been well-known for years, but it was the first time an official document has emerged showing Chávez's approval of joint military industrial projects.
The sum is trivial, but the timing and the partnerships are of critical importance. Iran's missile program came under intense international pressure after the U.N. Security Council passed two resolutions (1696 and 1737) in 2006, enacting sanctions against Iran's procurement efforts. Specifically, Resolution 1737 named Parchin Chemical Industries as a key player in Tehran's ballistic missile program. European Union and U.S. sanctions passed in 2007 and 2008 targeted Parchin Chemical Industries as well, and sought to freeze its assets and block its financial transactions.
The approval of funds came less than a year after the U.S. Treasury targeted the Iranian company, making it difficult to procure technology and materials, let alone pay for them. By establishing facilities in a foreign country where Iran was already intent on creating joint commercial and banking ventures, Parchin found a gateway to evade sanctions. Eventually, the U.S. Department of State sanctioned CAVIM in 2013 for this and other joint Iran-Venezuela projects, but by then, Iran had had four quiet years to advance its solid rocket-fuel production.
The La Veja scoop is thus a reminder of the objectives that underlie Zarif's Latin America charm campaign. These are the types of investment, after all, that Iran made in Latin America in the last decade, building on the strength of an ideological alliance with like-minded regimes that share the Islamic Republic's anti-Americanism. The document also revealed a critical flaw in the nuclear agreement reached last summer.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, stipulates that the EU will de-sanction Parchin Chemical Industries in seven years, although it (and CAVIM) will remain under U.S. sanctions. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, lifted the ban on Iran's ballistic-missile activity entirely, replacing it with a toothless call for Tehran to refrain from doing so. As it happens, Iran has already conducted multiple tests since the implementation of the nuclear agreement in January 2016 — most recently last July.
The infrastructure Iran established in Latin America to advance its missile program during the sanctions era will now make it easier for Tehran to further its program. It will also make it possible for Iran's allies, which stood by their partner during the sanctions era, to cash in on joint projects and benefit from the technology Iran is developing on their soil.
Prior to the nuclear deal, Iran relied on anti-American regimes like Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia to withstand missile and nuclear sanctions. Now, as the deal is implemented, Washington must not look away as the Islamic Republic revives its missile infrastructure in Latin America.
Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @eottolenghi.